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An Open Letter to President Donald J. Trump and the Government of the United States of America

An Open Letter to President Donald J. Trump and the Government of the United States of America
By Irma. A. Velásquez Nimatuj

Photo Credit: Skylight from the film series “Defiance”

Mr. President, I am a Mayan-K’iche’ woman from Western Guatemala, and I am one of 5 women out of approximately 9 million indigenous people in my country who have a Ph.D., a process that should not be celebrated within capitalist logic as an individual achievement of overcoming, but rather understood as a product of the exclusion of indigenous peoples in Guatemala and the continent over the past 494 years. I am a journalist and a social anthropologist, and I know Central America because, for two decades, I have worked with communities, organizations and institutions throughout the region. I have traveled, and I have lived in its innards; for that reason, I write to you because I cannot silence the deep pain I feel witnessing the humanitarian crisis experienced by my Honduran brothers and sisters. A crisis that is reflected in the more than five thousand people –among them children, youth, adults, pregnant women, the elderly and people with disabilities– who have left their homeland and are now heading by any means possible to the United States.

While Honduras is currently drawing attention due to the massive nature of this human exodus, the crisis has also undermined the stability of Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua. Every 17 minutes, a person leaves his or her country in Central America. This sobering fact indicates that we are not dealing with isolated cases, but rather, a crisis of the political and economic system of the region. This is not a problem caused by the lack of laws or existence of legal loopholes. Laws can be hardened, and the best equipped army in the world could be placed at different borders, but these measures will not be able to stop this flood of people which will only keep increasing.  These are families and individuals who are shouting to the world that they are leaving the place where they were born because their governments have not been able to fulfill their promises to create decent opportunities so that they can stay and fulfill their own dreams.

In the majority of Central American countries, politicians, in alliance with traditional economic and military elites, groups responsible for crimes against humanity, have coopted the State as a source of personal enrichment and a means to secure their economic and racial privileges. This occurs while large populations languish amid violence and hunger. Today, in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, gangs are stronger than security forces. Criminal groups have better weapons and resources than the national police themselves, because their members receive equipment and a high weekly income. Within these criminal structures, their members, or those among them who manage to survive, have the possibility to rise in the command structure based on the fulfillment of their work, while within the institutions of the State, the best professionals never can advance because positions are assigned via corruption or to pay electoral favors.

An example is Guatemala, where members of the National Civil Police, along with their wives and children, took to the roads this week because the police stations offer no sanitation services or a living wage. People are organizing and leaving their homes and all that is familiar because they cannot wait for politicians to prioritize them in their agendas, since presidents only spout a series of lies and speeches filled with promises that they never fulfill. And when civil society tries to create alternatives and institutions that strengthen States, they are immediately dismantled. Thus, you have the actions of Guatemalan president Jimmy Morales and his cabinet, who have forgotten to govern. As a result, today, the entire infrastructure of the country is almost destroyed, and our highways are impassable. For example, it is almost impossible to reach frontier departments like Huehuetenango –one of the largest in the country– because the road no longer exists. The president of my country, Jimmy Morales demonstrated repeatedly that he does not care if the population lives or dies, as he has focused exclusively on securing impunity for himself, his government and his financial backers. This has entailed concerted efforts to dismantle by legal and illegal methods the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, or CICIG, for its Spanish acronym.

President Morales himself, along with the economic and military elites, have paid millions to lobbyists      in Washington to destroy the CICIG, while the current attorney general, Maria Consuelo Porras Argueta, is implementing a regressive agenda in Guatemala to dismantle the valuable achievements in the national justice system implemented by former attorneys general Claudia Paz y Paz (2010-2014) and Thelma Aldana (2014-2018 who began, in a brave manner, to build professional and honest teams at the highest levels. For the most part funds from international cooperation partners, including the United States, financed these fundamental reforms.

The CICIG was created in Guatemala in 2006, due to the State’s inability to stop the corruption, cartels and parallel power networks that had their origins in the counterinsurgency period of the second half of the 20th century. During that time, the financial aid and training that the United States provided to military governments in Latin America did not create the desired democracy or peace. Instead those funds were used to arm and line the pockets of military officials and organized crime structures. For this reason, Central American migration is not a new process. Your country, Mr. Trump, must undertake a critical analysis of its foreign policy from a historical perspective to assume responsibility and learn from the mistakes of the past if you really want to stop human migration. In the 1980s, thousands of Central Americans fled to the United States because of the violence that the States and their security forces, financed by your government, exerted on hundreds of thousands of families and communities until they were destroyed.

After the period of democratic transition, corruption networks and mafias permeated the State and they have used all its institutions to loot it for decades. As a result, the main ministries such as health, education, government and communications have extremely limited budgets unable to meet the needs of the majority. In the case of Guatemala, this has meant that, after the State and guerrilla groups signed the official Peace Accords in 1996, the Guatemalan population continues to migrate to the United States as an escape valve, due to the lack of basic services and the inability to build or run small, medium or large companies, cooperatives or businesses because it is impossible to access even a quality education, not to mention fair credit.

During this supposedly “post-conflict period”, political, economic and military elites along with mafias have been modifying the Guatemalan State to reduce the middle class which declines year after year while increasing the privileges of a very small sector that does not exceed 10% of the total population. Consequently, this 10% is left with 45% of the national wealth that we generate, and it refuses to pay direct taxes. In a beautiful and rich country, it is thanks to international cooperation that the health and education systems in Guatemala survive. In my experience working in development aid, I witnessed how the national budget in these vital social areas is maintained thanks to the support of the United States and other donor countries, and without that help, millions of other human beings would have died or would have abandoned the country. Furthermore, the United States’ financial assistance, along with that of 12 other countries, allowed the fulfillment of some of the Peace Accords when the Guatemalan State disregarded its responsibility.

Based on my experience working and living in indigenous and non-indigenous communities, in urban and rural regions, within Guatemala and throughout Latin America, the best investment that your country and others have made in Guatemala has been betting on the creation of the CICIG. Under the direction of Commissioner Iván Velásquez the CICIG has showed that Guatemala is not a poor country; on the contrary, Guatemala is a rich country. The problem is that direct and indirect taxes that all citizens must pay, do not reach the population. Instead taxes are funneled through multiple networks to the pockets of presidents, ministers, diplomats, magistrates, judges, deputies, mayors, governors and private national and foreign companies who share them, becoming billionaires at the expense of allowing Guatemala’s poverty increased by 8.1 percentage points in the last decade.

The United States wants to stop migration from our countries, and we want to live in our countries. We desire justice to close the wounds and crimes of the recent armed conflict. We want to be prosperous there, and we want to attain basic, dignified living conditions for all.  We are tired of the acute violence that prevent us from growing, investing and living in our countries of origin. Instead, we live with feelings of frustration and permanent indignation that only strengthen the historical trauma that we carry.

In recent times, the best brains, the best people trained in multiple areas and specialties have left Central America because of repression and violence, but above all, due to the inability to find a decent job for us and our families. The only way we can access a job is to join corrupt networks. If those of us with high levels of preparation are leaving our countries with deep pain, imagine the poor populations. The families that do not find income to support their homes, the youth who cannot materialize their dreams because no one employs them, the indigenous communities who live in isolated territories, women who see their children die in the absence of a hospital, without drinking water, vaccines or doctors. There is no other option for these people. And our work while living outside our homelands is key. Today, the remittances of citizens living abroad represent 12% of Guatemala’s Gross Domestic Product, 18.3% in El Salvador, 19.5% in Honduras and 10.2% in Nicaragua. Without these remittances, the crises in our countries would be more acute. The world must know and understand that the massive and unstoppable migration of Central Americans is a human and natural reaction. A solution to escape hunger and death. I am sure that, under similar conditions, you would do the same for you and for your family.

Guatemala only has 7 hospitals for 17 million inhabitants, and these are in deplorable conditions. Up to 80% of children under 5 years old suffer from chronic child malnutrition. Poverty is mainly concentrated in indigenous regions due to the structural racism of the country. Meanwhile, health ministers defend themselves by arguing budget shortfalls while they, together with pharmaceutical companies, pocket the meager budget assigned to the ministry. Due to all this, there is no other way to obtain a bed in a hospital but to resort to corruption. In addition, doctors with specialties have a salary not exceeding $500 per month for half a day’s work. How can they not leave given this reality?

For these reasons, and in view of the results that the CICIG has demonstrated over the last 5 years, which include sending to jail more than 600 officials and entrepreneurs who embezzled State funds and dismantling networks involving key figures from trade unionists to presidents, it would be a historical and political error of your administration to allow its destruction. If you continue to support the corrupt regimes of Central America, the waves of migrants will not only continue but will increase. They will be unstoppable, and they will migrate as far as they can. The people of Central America at this moment do not believe or listen to their rulers nor to any other official. Their internal anger, frustration and courage is so great because they know that these people lie and only seek impunity. Such was the case on Thursday, October 18th, when congressional deputies in Guatemala City passed a law reducing the penalties for illegal campaign financing, so that President Morales, the political parties that feed off undeclared funds and the financial backers of election campaigns will not face judgement, while the country is weathering a tropical depression that is devastating the national territory and leaving millions of inhabitants uncommunicated. This state of calamity did not matter to the deputies because they are taking advantage of the crisis to impose a criminal amnesty. As the rulers and congressmen of our countries put their interests before those of the people in acts like these, they lose all legitimacy and undermine the weak democracies that emerged after the armed conflicts of the 1970s and 1980s.

If these conditions persist, vulnerable populations that decide to stay in their countries will do so, with the risk of ending up involved in organized crime in any of its different facets, because it is the only possibility of finding employment for young people and adults, women and men. This, in turn, will imply that the narcotics trafficking through Central America will increase significantly to the United States. The social conflicts that have reached alarming levels will continue to rise. Guatemala alone has more than 1,200 social conflicts, product of inequity and disputes over the few remaining natural  resources. Above all, the United States will have within 2,500 kilometers of its borders a permanent source of social instability that other world powers will take advantage of and that undoubtedly will interact with other social phenomena over time to maintain high levels of polarization that will generate high rates of violence, which sooner or later will impact the United States.

Being a witness and active participant, I strongly believe that the best way to use the United States’ taxpayer money via foreign assistance is to strengthen institutions like the CICIG to build solid States at the service of their citizens and no more corrupt State networks that keep a good part of the donations. In addition, for aid in Central America to be placed in priority areas and have an impact, it must be directed not by the same sector that has impoverished the country, but by the authorities and community leaders in regional and local contexts, because they know the priorities in their territories and how to execute them. For that reason, what remains of assistance for Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador must be revised and redesigned before being delivered. Otherwise, the same story will repeat itself and millions will be lost to benefit the companies of elites that have always enjoyed all the contracts. Only a process of institutional cleansing and transparency will allow us, little by little, to build prosperity and stability. The United States has today in its hands the unique political and historical opportunity to support this valuable institution that it helped to create –the CICIG that was born in Guatemala and can be replicated in many other countries where war, hunger, malnutrition, migration, violence and social confrontation have taken over the population.

Central America is a beautiful and rich territory, and it cannot continue expelling its population, its labor force. Therefore, it is urgent to invest in all its inhabitants and not the few. It is urgent to invest in its people recognizing their diversity, and it is urgent to create institutions that generate stability and promote the sharing of wealth.

Paco de Onís

Paco is the Executive Director and Executive Producer of Skylight, a human rights media organization dedicated to advancing social justice through storytelling by creating documentary films and media tools that can applied in long-term strategies for positive social change.

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